What? Don't drive too slow? Yes, my friend! There are warning signs. If you are too slow and have caused traffic and there five cars following you, you might get a ticket! Pull over to the side of the road specified for slow moving vehicles and let those cars behind you to pass! Highway 101 is the main access to the Olympic National Park and it has only one lane and if you are too slow busy looking at the views, you better watch out because it might cause traffic!
Permits are required when you stay overnight at the Olympic National Forest wilderness. There are seven ranger stations where you can obtain permits. Or you can call information. Also, don't use regular maps. You have to use a detailed topographic maps where you can obtain specific trails, primitive trails and pass. This map is called Into Olympic:Wilderness Trip Planner. You should stop by the stations and should inquire about ford locations and difficulty in crossing.
Traveling across snow banks on trails not yet completely free of the previous winter's snow can be tricky if on steep sections. Olympic was still full of snow at the higher elevation when we visited in August of 2008. The High Divide trail was just thawing out and while parts were entirely snow-free, there were still huge drifts of snow on parts not getting afternoon sun. There were a few hairy crossings and in lieu of having an ice axe, a simple hiking pole helps. Keep the pole on your upside. Never use the pole to lean on the downward side in an attempt to even the trail out. Dig your boots in as you walk to create some traction and make a flatter service on which to walk. By having the pole on the upside, if you do slip, you can use it to slow you slide down much as you would an ice axe, though certainly not as effective. The most important thing is to take you time and watch your step.
Whenever you go into the Olympics, you need tothink hard about the weather. Rainfall is unlike what you find in the eastern US - an hour or so in the late afternoon. Here it rains a week at a time. Maybe not hard, but then again ...... Hikers and campers should be especially be ready. If you are wet, hypothermia can be not far off.
When the weather is grand, the Olympic beauty is of gold medal quality. If the weather forecast is bad, go visit Paul Allen's Music Museum in Seattle or sip coffee at a Starbucks - better yet, a local brew at Big Time Brewpub on the Ave (University Avenue) near the University of Washington (Just ignore all of the purple and gold, which looks an awful lot like yellow and green - NW-oriented joke) - unless you want to see a rainforest in the rain.
Mountain goats definitely fall into the 'cute' category. They are fairly bold creatures, but won't be much of a problem to you until you decide to do a rock climb, high up on some Olympic ridge somewhere. If you drop your pack, at the rock section -Mt Cruiser in the southeast corner of the Park comes to mind here - your pack becomes a beacon to before-hidden mountain goats. They wait til you are halfway up before making their move. That pack has absorbed so much of your nice salty sweat, it is a mother lode. You know how far a mountain goat has to go to the store for salt? Your pack is like the pizzaman has just delievered. A chewed up pack with no shoulder straps, can be a very hard thing to hike off the mountain with.
The Olympic Peninsula has massive tides and you need to pay attention to them when walking on the beaches there. This can be as simple as checking the tide charts at the Visitor Center so that you can be on the beach when the tides have just gone out, the optimal time for exploring tide-pools. But the more important thing to remember is that as soon as the tide is at its lowest, it starts coming back in. Remember that some places are only passable at low tide and you can become trapped not being able to return the way you came or worse yet, be crushed by waves against the rocks if you are somewhere underwater at high tide.
We seriously underestimated all the things you can see on the peninsula and how easy it is to fritter a day away; it's not a place to hurry. We also made a couple of bad decisions that, in hindsight, would have bought us time in places we would better have enjoyed.
We didn't explore:
Cape Flattery/Neah Bay - not part of the park but has an excellent Makah museum and hiking
Ozette area lake and Shi Shi beach
Sol Duc Springs
Kalaloch - drove by but didn't get to spend time on the beach there
Lake Quinault - quick stop
You can hit the highlights in 2-3 days (we had 4) but can easily spend a week here unless you're not interested in spending any time in a pair of hiking shoes. I had mentioned our 11 hours in one day on just 4 of the beaches? Honestly, you can walk for hours and never get tired of them. So my only warning here is to give yourself enough days to see it all and putter a bit when the putterin's good!
Having a tide chart is essential to exploring the coastal beaches - especially if planning to go any kind of distance. There are headlands that can only be breached during low tide and you can be trapped on the wrong side if wandering around unaware of how much time you have to do that. Parts of some of the beaches can still be accessed at high tide and others, not so. Incoming tides during stormy weather can also create dangerous wave activity so always have a current tide table and know how to read it.
Tables can be downloaded from the park website (see link) or picked up at the visitor centers. They're not difficult - if you look at a PDF of one for the month you're visiting (see the web address below) you'll see the rise and fall of the blue line that corresponds to time of day for any particular date. Where the wave hits the bottom of the chart, that's low tide. You'll also notice that not all high or low tides are the same - some are more extreme than others. Some days you'll be lucky to have 2 low tides during daylight hours, and others - especially at times of the year when daylight is short - you might only have a brief time after dawn or before dark to try and see those fascinating tidepools.
The waters of the Pacific are frigid all year long plus rocks and wave-tossed debris make swimming dangerous here. We saw a couple of surfers at Rialto and down near Ocean Shores: all were experienced, wearing wetsuits and not attempting their rides during extreme high tides. Enjoy the beaches and wade a bit for a better look at the tidepools but swimming isn't recommended.
Unlike many park environments, you are allowed to collect wood and build a nice beach fire on a chilly evening! Gathering is limited to driftwood found on the beaches and you can only build your campfire where high tide will wash away the evidence. Carry that tide table and be aware of when incoming waves will carry off the ashes but not you or your camp supplies. It's OK to pick up a few interesting rocks or empty seashells, too. See the link below on campfires, coastal hiking and other necessary stuff to know.
Big "Twilight" events - like Stephenie Meyer Day (Sept 13) - in Forks can swamp this tiny town with fans. Be sure to check the local calendar and book your accommodations WELL in advance if you're interested in staying here and your visit will coincide with one of these things.
Weather conditions can change very quickly on the peninsula - especially along the coast. It can be raining buckets one minute and bright and sunny the next. We arrived at beaches under calm, blues skies that turned to windy, grey clouds just moments later. There's just no good way to predict what it's going to be at any hour or at any location so come prepared for anything and everything.
I took these pictures of Second Beach just six minutes apart - this wall of fog just rolled in out of nowhere!
I usually feel pretty silly posting this tip on every page, but I saw something at Olympic that made me think it is actually necessary. This deer was grazing in a populated area near the Hurricane Ridge visitor's center. Several people, including myself, were taking pictures, trying to keep some distance from the animal. A woman walking by with her two small children actually told her son that deer are "very tame" and that the little boy could feed them if he liked. No matter how many signs there are saying "Do not feed the wildlife", people just don't seem to get it. I've heard stories about animals attacking people who did incredibly stupid things like pose their children on or next to a wild animal and actually thought and, well, hoped, these stories were made up. This woman actually reached into her bag to hand the little boy some sunflower seeds so that he could presumably hand feed a not so tame animal. I was about to intervene, but, fortunately, she did not do this and they moved on.
Deer may look like sweet tame animals but they are capable of attacking. At Olympic, deer are everywhere and many have lost their fear of humans and will graze while scores of people walk by. This does not mean that its safe to feed them or, even worse, to allow your children to do so.
Remember to get the tides before you leave on your trip, get them online, or at trail head. Check maps carefully, will indicate headlands that can only be crossed at low tide.
Bear barels required for food, garbage, toothpaste, etc. Really it's for the squirels, raccons, etc. that go for your food (even damaging tents & backpacks)
Have a good water filter, know how it works and how to clean it. Expect to clean the filter for every 3 quarts at Cape Alava, every quart at Sand Point. Brown water after passing through filter is normal, think of it as leaf tea.
They warn you to stay well away from the beaches in stormy weather as extreme high tides can toss up huge pieces of driftwood or move existing piles around, making them very unstable. Here are a couple of examples of how big this stuff can be.
Figure anything wet is going to be very, very slippery - and most of the time EVERYTHING in the rain forest or on the coast is wet. Drift piles are especially dangerous; if you have to cross a heap of damp logs to get to the beach, stay low and move carefully. I took a bad one off a jumble of these and was very lucky to escape with just a few bruises. These piles may also be loose - another reason to proceed cautiously and test your footing before placing your entire weight.
At low tide, seaweed-covered rocks are just as slimy - it can be all too easy to take a header into a tidepool trying to get up close and personal with the starfish.